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Religion and Politics in Ukraine

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Ever since the conversion and baptism of Prince Vladimir I at Kiev around the year 889, the relationship between the Ruthenian or Ukrainian people - in the past often called the "Little Russians" -- and the rest of the Eastern Slavs (the "Great Russians") has been an off and on again affair. For the first 300 years or so, Ukraine (the word itself meant "borderland") and the rest of Russia formed one state. Then, after the Mongol and Tatar invasions, the Ukrainian peoples looked westward for help, to Poland, Lithuania, even to Sweden, from whom the Russian Czar, after a decisive battle in 1709, finally succeeded in reuniting the Ukraine to Russia as a whole.

By now, after all these weeks of turmoil, we've all heard how the latest reincarnation of Prince Vladimir (Vladimir Putin) seems to be stirring trouble in the Eastern part of Ukraine which he believes never should have been added, by his former Communist bosses years ago, to the rest of Ukraine decades before the Soviet Union fell apart. From his point of view, the idea of a Ukraine separate from the rest of Russia makes about as much as sense as the New England states, where the American Revolution started, declaring themselves independent of the rest of the USA. Or again, maybe in his mind, he sees himself as a kind of Russian version of Abraham Lincoln refusing to accept the idea of a separate Ukrainian version of the Confederate States of America.

But from the Ukrainian nationalist point of view, things look quite different. For one, it is estimated that under the Communists, possibly as many as 3 million Ukrainian farmers and their families were starved to death by Stalin and his henchmen in the effort to force collectivization in that rich agricultural region that had become known as Eastern Europe's "bread-basket". Hence, there should be little surprise that at least some Ukrainians welcomed Hitler's invasion and took up arms against the Communists. The fact that, after the war, Nikita Kruschev, the Communist Party boss in the Ukraine, added the Crimean peninsula to Ukraine after he became head of the whole USSR, might be seen as an effort to win greater favor for Moscow from the Ukrainian people as a whole.

However, the one thing that we have heard little about in the news is how over these thousand years or so, the major thing that has especially united Ukrainians and Russians, in addition to their shared national origin in Kiev, has been their shared membership in the Eastern Orthodox or Byzantine Rite Christian faith into which Prince Vladimir and his subjects were baptized shortly before the great schism or break took place between the Western (Roman Catholic) and Eastern Orthodox faith. Nor have we heard much about how divided that Eastern branch of Christianity in Ukraine has itself become divided in recent times. In fact, over 100 years before Ukraine was reunited to Russia some 300 years ago, a sizable portion of the Ukrainian clergy decided to reunite with the Western Church, becoming what is now known as the Ukrainian or Ruthenian Greek Catholic Church, retaining their own customs, such as a married parish clergy, Church Slavonic as their official liturgical language (much as Latin remains for the Roman Church), and their Byzantine (Greek) Rite ways of worship. In fact, these distinctively Ukrainian Catholics form the largest non-Latin Rite segment of the Catholic Church. They also happen to predominate in the population of western Ukraine where the feelings run highest regarding close ties with the European Union.

As for the rest of Ukraine, particularly the farther east one goes, one finds a predominance of Ukrainian Orthodox (that is, to Roman eyes, non-Catholic) Christians, particularly among the Russian-speaking segment of the population. But this doesn't mean that they are uniformly longing for reunion with Putin's greater Russian Federation. In fact, one of the curiosities about the religious situation in Ukraine since its breaking away from Russia when the USSR fell apart is that there has not been one but as many as three separate Ukrainian Orthodox churches, each divided from the other over quarrels regarding who allowed themselves to be dominated most by the Russian Orthodox Church and Soviet Government which largely dominated it. So if anything, what is playing out in eastern Ukrainian politics is a continuation of intra-Orthodox religious strife as well. If so, the USA may well complain about Putin not being helpful, and even make it costly for him to interfere, but we would be wise to stay out of the political fray as much as possible. Our short history, which includes our own bloody civil war, hardly makes us qualified to settle a political, and even religious, quarrel between contentious cousins that has been going off and on again for over a thousand years.